With millions of books published every year, how do you decide what to read next?
In software development there’s a concept called the rockstar programmer. This is the kind of person who operates on a completely different level to most others, and can produce 10x the output of the average programmer. Hiring one of these people can be worth more than hiring ten average people.
I think the same is sometimes true in books. You can read endless good books, or you can seek out the exceptional ones and dedicate your time to those.
This doesn’t apply to all books, but I think it applies to most non-fiction books. While fiction is highly subjective and doesn’t necessarily have one purpose, the main point of non-fiction is usually learning.
I found this out through trial and error. For example, I like reading about psychology and behavioural economics. I really enjoyed the Freakonomics books, and some of Malcolm Gladwell’s writing. They’re easy reads and I came away from those books feeling like I’d learnt something. Though if you were to ask me now, I couldn’t formulate anything I learnt in a way that would be useful to me. (beyond maybe “incentives are important” and “little things can make a big difference”).
And then I read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It’s much more dense, and takes more time to get into. It requires more focus to read, and the chapters are longer. But it’s completely worth it. Reading this felt like other pop economics/psychology books (like the ones I mentioned above) took one idea from Kahneman’s book and turned it into a chapter, or took a chapter from his book and stretched it into four hundred pages.
Kahneman has spent decades leading research in his field, and so can talk about it in a level of depth that many others can’t. He takes the reader on a journey from hypothesis to experiment design, results, and interpretation. He’s constantly analysing his own way of thinking and shares a wealth of psychological biases that the reader can try to be more conscious of.
The same is true in other fields. Interested in evolution? Try reading Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. Or go right to the source, and read Darwin’s Origin of Species. You might be surprised by how relevant most of the content still is, and the clarity with which the ideas are presented. Physics? Try the Feynman lectures.
Some people are primarily writers, and their job is to sell as many books as they can. They find interesting ideas, and write them up in a way that makes people want to buy their books. There’s nothing wrong with this, but I think they rarely compare to the people whose writing is secondary to their real work.
This is where the 10x books come from — people who have invested huge amounts of time mastering a field, and who also happen to have a talent for explaining things.
These people don’t write about things because they’re new or fashionable. They probably don’t have enough material to bring out a new book every few years. But their material is far more valuable, and more timeless.
Timelessness is key. An easy way for an author to increase book sales is to cater excessively to the readers of the time, compensating for quality of content through ephemeral relevance. An extreme example of this is the news — while reading today’s news feels somehow educational, reading a newspaper from more than a few days ago is extremely dull.
You can use this as a heuristic to evaluate non-fiction books. If you’re looking for a book on a specific subject, see if there are any which are more than a few decades old and are still considered relevant. When judging a recent book, consider how useful you would expect it to be in a few decades. Hopefully this can help you find those exceptional 10x books, and avoid the ten others.
Thanks for reading! For some more book recommendations (fiction and non-fiction), check out this post 🙂
After a long drive, we arrived at Bassetto hostel late at night to find a room full of people and at least as many bottles emptied of wine.
It was the kind of place where everyone had a story. Something they were running away from, trying to hold on to, or trying to find.
As we talked to the others, we got to know their stories. It was like an episode of Lost, except the characters were real and the stories were well written.
We all shared travel experiences. One of the girls, Kristin, spoke about a beautiful B&B in a different part of Italy where she’d stayed with a welcoming family. The father, Enrico, was a great guy. His girlfriend had studied astrophysics, and recently spent a day meticulously placing hundreds of tiny fluorescent stickers on the bedroom ceilings in the places where the stars would be. Staying there was magical, like sleeping outdoors.
The others’ stories were even more interesting. A newly qualified doctor with an endless collection of completely implausible anecdotes. A super social ex-heroin addict. A guy who got divorced, sold his house and all his possessions, and was travelling until his money ran out. These were the people we’d be spending the next few days with, at Bassetto hostel.
Bassetto is a regal complex reminiscent of a castle, enveloped by huge grounds. The kind of place where, when it gets dark, you go ghost hunting. After it was built in the 13th century, it was inhabited by monks for hundreds of years, the cellars producing vast quantities of wine. Increased competition and the introduction of an official wine classification in the mid 1900s put an end to Bassetto’s wine business, and it fell into disuse.
After a short stint as a tobacco farm, the upper floors were converted into a guesthouse. The cellars remained empty. Mostly.
Midnight exploration of the underground caverns yielded some bottles of wine which were hundreds of years old.
As we went deeper into the cellars, the air got thicker and the room around our torch got darker. We pulled aside a curtain and entered a narrow tunnel. Suddenly someone was running.
“Did you feel that? This isn’t right. We have to leave!”
We ran through the tunnel, past the curtain, and into the open air. After we caught our breaths and recovered in the hammocks outside, we went up to the guesthouse and tried to get some sleep.
We left Bassetto, but it never really left us. We had gelato in Orvieto, rented a boat in Amalfi, explored ruins in Pompei, hiked up a mountain in Abruzzo, got sick on seafood in Rimini, and added another country to our list by having lunch in San Marino.
A few weeks and a thousand miles later we arrived in Modena for what were to be the last two nights of our trip. On our second day there we had lunch with the owner of the B&B and his family.
As we were eating, the owner’s girlfriend, the mother of one of the children, asked us if we’d noticed anything strange in our room the night before.
Facebook is incredible. Even just 10 years ago it would have been hard to think that there would be one go-to online identity service.
That instead of giving someone your number when you meet them, just exchanging names could be enough to stay in touch with them for years.
That you don’t lose touch with people when they move. That you could keep up with the lives of people living anywhere in the world. That you could share pictures with all your friends at the click of a button.
But all these benefits come at a cost. Since Facebook is a for-profit company and not a public service, their main goal is to make money. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s worth keeping in mind how it affects Facebook’s interaction with us, its users.
“If you’re not paying then you’re not the customer; you are the product being sold”
Setting aside issues of privacy and Facebook gathering and selling your information, Facebook makes money by literally charging advertisers for a piece of your attention. One of the main ways in which it does this is through the News Feed.
I recently read the book Deep Work by Cal Newport, in which he advocates deliberate use of social media. In fact, he goes so far as to recommend quitting social media altogether. While I think that’s overkill, his book led me to re-examine how I used Facebook and to come up with a few easy ways to get the most out of it.
Making Facebook your own
Keep what you like, get rid of the rest
By changing the way you access Facebook, you can make it what you want it to be.
Thinking about how I use Facebook, these are the things I value:
One platform to message any of my friends
Being invited to events and inviting others to events
Seeing significant events for certain close friends
These are the things I catch myself doing which I want to avoid:
Mindlessly opening Facebook on my phone and scrolling through the News Feed any time I go a second without stimulation
Seeing just the good bits of other people’s lives and wondering why I’m not on holiday, why I’m not running a marathon, or why I’m not moving in to a new house
“Oh wow! That girl I met in Thailand in 2012 just dyed her hair! ”
To serve Facebook’s advertising goals, the above are addictive by design and so the best way to avoid them is probably to avoid the News Feed altogether.
It turns out that this isn’t too hard to do. I’m using a combination of tools I found through recommendations from friends (thanks Ed Moyse!), Google, and Quora:
This extension gives you Facebook, minus the News Feed. Once installed, you can go to facebook.com and do absolutely anything you like — look up friends, message people, check your notifications, sign up to events. Except for scrolling through the News Feed.
Bookmark this on your phone. This shows just your notifications, for those times when you’re thinking “I wonder if anything has happened that I should know about” but don’t want to get dragged into anything irrelevant. I use this, together with Messenger, instead of the Facebook app on my phone.
While this might not work for everyone, I’ve found it to be really useful so far. However you feel about this exact solution, you might like to think about what‘s right for you rather than leaving it up to Facebook to decide. And if you come to any interesting conclusions, I’d love to hear about them!
As I talked about in my post on annual reviews, I use a weekly diary-type process to keep track of how everything is going.
My process is simple: I have a spreadsheet in Google Docs which has a number of rows containing questions, and every week I add a new column with the answers to those for that week. I usually set aside around half an hour to do this, though depending on what the week has been like for me it could take more or less time than that.
The exact questions will depend on what’s important to you and what you want to track. A few of my key ones are:
What went well this week?
What went badly this week?
Who did you enjoy spending time with?
Who did you not enjoy spending time with?
What’s your mood like right now?
What happened this week?
In the first two I usually put down things like work, personal relationships, sleep, exercise, nutrition, motivation, and progress on projects outside of work.
Three and four force me to be honest about the people I spend time with, and allow me be more aware of whose company I enjoy consistently and who I should be spending more or less time with.
The last two are great when looked at across an entire year. While the mood question tends to have a one word answer, the other one I treat like a free-text area where I just write down in a few lines all the things I can remember happening, in no particular order. This part is more like a traditional diary, and gives some insight into what I was thinking about/doing each week.
I think everyone should take the time to answer the above six questions on a weekly basis. This system not only provides them with greater insight into themselves, but is also a useful tool looking back across a period of several months.
In addition to the above, I’ve also integrated a few extra things into my weekly review process:
External data sources — RescueTime measures how I spend my time on my phone and computer, and sometimes faces me with the grim reality that I spent 5+ hours on WhatsApp in a single week. Beeminder keeps track of my more short-term personal goals and habit commitments.
GTD cleanup — clearing my In list and reviewing my Next Actions list to ensure that everything there is still relevant. More details here.
Meta goals — spending 30 seconds thinking about how I can improve my weekly review, and another 30 seconds checking my calendar and finding a convenient time to do it next week.
The last point is crucial to keeping up this or any other habit, and is something I will elaborate on in a future post.
Having done this mini review every week for a year now (except one where I was on a two week road-trip holiday and completely forgot) I feel like it’s added a lot to my life and I expect it to evolve more as I keep doing it. I’d like to thank Cal Newport for giving me the idea to do this.
Enjoyed this article? Please share/recommend/follow 🙂
There is one ingredient (other than coffee) that is key to a successful annual review — and that’s acknowledging that a year is a long time. Our minds aren’t built to compare events across such long time frames, and a severe subconscious distortion takes place when you try to think about everything that happened in an entire year. The solution to this is to make reviewing your life not just something you do on a yearly basis, but an ongoing process.
Weekly Reviews and The Availability Heuristic
The Availability Heuristic is a cognitive bias that was introduced to me in the book Thinking, Fast and Slow. It’s the phenomenon which causes people to make judgements about the probability and significance of events by how easy it is to think of examples.
In practice, it means that more recent events are far easier to remember than distant events, and so we see them as more significant and more frequent. So when we do an annual review without prior planning, we often end up reviewing the end of the year rather than the year as a whole.
To avoid this bias, and to try to separate recency from importance or intensity, it helps to review the year’s events as if they just happened.
The way I’ve started doing that is to keep a kind of log, a very compact diary, on a weekly basis. I’ve been doing this for a year now and I feel like it’s really helped me keep things in perspective. Reading through this I’ll often be surprised at how significant things which happened a long time ago seemed at the time. I’ve written about my weekly review process in more detail here.
Use Systems, Not Goals
Gym attendance statistics are one piece of evidence to suggest that New Year’s resolutions don’t tend to work — the general defeatist attitude towards them is another.
Goals like “exercise more”, “eat less”, “learn to speak French” and “lose 5kg” are almost impossible to realise by themselves. Scott Adams has written and talked about this quite a bit. Describing a system as a way to “continually look for better options”, he writes:
Throughout my career I’ve had my antennae up, looking for examples of people who use systems as opposed to goals. In most cases, as far as I can tell, the people who use systems do better. The systems-driven people have found a way to look at the familiar in new and more useful ways.
To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose 10 pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal — if you reach it at all — feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.
To combat this, I use a combination of vague guidelines and rigid systems. Guidelines are idealistic rules which give guidance in decision making, whereas systems are there to implement these rules in a realistic and sustainable way.
This year was the first time I implemented these new tools, spending a morning in the local library with a lot of coffee, a notebook and a laptop. I got a lot of clarity out of those few hours, and it got me excited about the year coming up. If you’d like to try this out you might find my other post about weekly reviews helpful.
Enjoyed this article? Please share/recommend/follow 🙂
For more on cognitive biases, check out the book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Buy it now on Amazon (UK/US) or compare prices across multiple stores (UK/US).
At school I had a physics teacher who was extremely pedantic. Nothing would upset him more than if you used the wrong term to refer to something. Even small mistakes most people wouldn’t pick up on would incense him.
I didn’t really get why, and in fact we would take great pleasure in saying the wrong thing so we could watch his face turn red as he shouted “Gravity is not a force! It’s an ACCELERATION!”
But one of the distinctions he made has stuck with me. One that has turned out to be useful in many things in life, and not just physics. And that’s the distinction between accuracy and precision. While some people use these almost interchangeably, they have very different technical definitions.
Both apply to problems of measurement. In measuring things, we rarely have perfect tools, and most measurements will have some degree of error in them. Accuracy and precision are words we use to talk about different aspects of those degrees of error.
Accuracy vs Precision
Accuracy is how close our measurement is to the real value we’re trying to measure.
Precision is about the level of detail in our measurement.
It’s not immediately clear why these are different concepts, because in many cases they have the same magnitude. For example, measuring length with a ruler will let you read off an answer to the nearest 1mm (precision), which will probably be within 1mm of the real length (accuracy).
But this isn’t always the case. A watch might show the time to the nearest second (precision), but if you haven’t set it properly it could be out by a few minutes (accuracy).
It gets worse. When we start dealing with estimates and predictions in the presence of noise, these numbers can be much further off.
For example, this article in the Telegraph claims that socialising increases our happiness by 6.38%. Yes, it might be true for the set of data points collected on the sample of people surveyed. But the decimal places hardly seem relevant, as the ‘real value’ (if there even is such a thing in this case) probably can’t be measured that accurately in a single study.
What’s happening in the Telegraph article, and in other places, is that by giving results to a high degree of precision, they create the illusion of accuracy and confidence in the results.
It’s not particularly damaging here, as there probably aren’t many people basing their actions on the results of that article. But what about more significant areas?
There’s nothing wrong with predictions or estimates, but giving precise estimates and not stating the variance or the level of confidence can be misleading.
If you’re making a decision based on data, don’t mistake precision for accuracy. If in doubt, ask questions:
How many measurements were used to come up with the number you’ve been presented with?
What is the range in the sample of measurements? What was the smallest value, and what was the largest value?
How close does the person presenting the data think it is to the real value?
The last question will force them to be open about the accuracy of their data, and should allow you to decide how much weight to place on it. Sometimes it can even be best to just ignore the number completely and focus on more important things for your decision!
Thanks for reading! If you’ve found this article useful I’d really appreciate it if you could share or recommend it so other people can find it too. Follow me for more of the same, or check out some of my other articles.
I just finished reading Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, and found it fascinating. It’s like an applied version of Thinking, Fast and Slow, with lots of examples on how cognitive biases are exploited and how you can protect yourself against each of them.
I picked it up because it’s recommended by Derek Sivers as one of the top books on sales and marketing. There’s some great content in there, and as I found myself sharing my notes with a few friends I decided to put them up here for everyone to read. I don’t think the below summary is a replacement for reading the book, but it should give you a good idea of what the main ideas are and whether it’s the kind of book you’d like to read.
Derek Sivers also has his own notes on the book here. I’d highly recommend buying and reading the full book though, for £6/$8 it’s a great investment!
Some animal behaviours are completely governed by reactions to simple triggers. E.g. mother turkeys will care for anything that cheeps, but won’t care for a baby turkey that doesn’t. This can also apply to humans.
The contrast principle. When two different things are shown one after the other, the differentiating characteristics of the second will appear exaggerated. So if you’re selling a suit and a jumper to the same person, sell the suit first. Then the jumper will appear cheaper. This is related to the concept of anchoring.
Human societies have developed an evolutionary urge to reciprocate. This means that by giving someone a gift/doing them a favour, you can generate goodwill and potentially a return gesture. This can work regardless of whether the initial gesture was invited or not, and even if it was unwanted.
The reciprocation rule also applies to concessions — so if you ask someone for a big favour and they say no and you concede by asking them for a smaller favour, they are then likely to concede and say yes to that smaller favour.
Arrangements agreed with perceived concession generate increased feelings of responsibility (the opponent feels that he influenced the negotiation) for and satisfaction with the outcome.
The key to resisting these tactics, if used on you, is to recognise them for what they are. There’s no need to refuse all favours, but if you recognise a favour as a sales tactic then respond to it not as a favour, but as a sales tactic. There’s no need to reciprocate to a sales tactic.
Commitment and Consistency
The drive to be (and look) consistent is a highly potent weapon of social influence, often causing us to act in ways that are clearly contrary to our own best interests.
One way toy stores use this: run ads for amazing toys before Christmas. Undersupply stores with those toys so parents have to buy substitutes. After Christmas, increase supply again so parents who promised their kids they’d buy those toys and want to remain consistent end up buying Christmas toys twice.
Commitments are most effective in changing a person’s self-image and future behaviour when they are active, public, and effortful. But even more importantly, the person must think they have chosen to commit in the absence of strong outside pressures.
This suggests that we should never heavily bribe or threaten children to do the things we want them truly to believe in. If we want them to believe in the correctness of what they have done, then we must somehow arrange for them to accept inner responsibility for the actions we want them to take.
Lowballing: an advantage is offered that induces a favoured behaviour or decision. The subject justifies this decision to themselves by changing their views to fit the decision. Then the advantage is taken away, and the behaviour/decision is fully supported by the subject’s new views.
Two ways to fight back against opponents attempting to use your need for consistency against your best interests: 1. If you get that weird feeling in your stomach and realise what is happening, call them out on it. Say that you don’t want to continue purely for the sake of consistency. 2. If you’re not sure what you really believe, ask yourself and pay special attention to your immediate instinctive/emotional response. You can lie to yourself and rationalise things when thinking intellectually, but not as easily in these basic responses.
People use others’ opinion as another shortcut to figuring out the truth. This sometimes even works when something mimics others’ opinion even though we know it’s fake — e.g. laughter tracks make things seem funnier.
The pluralistic ignorance effect or bystander effect happens under uncertainty, when the social cues that everything is fine overcome the concern that there might be an emergency.
In an emergency, ask for help clearly. Direct your request at one person at a time. Your best strategy when in need of emergency help is to reduce the uncertainties of those around you concerning your condition and their responsibilities.
1978 Jonestown, Guyana. Jim Jones, leader of The People’s Temple, instructs his followers to commit mass suicide. 910 people did so. This was after, a year earlier, the entire community moved from San Francisco to the jungle in Guyana.
Surrounded by uncertainty, people look to the actions of others to guide their own actions.
Be wary of situations where social feedback is faked (laughter tracks, ads,…) and consciously disengage your social autopilot and examine the evidence independently. Look up and around periodically whenever locked onto the evidence of the crowd.
People are more likely to buy from or follow others they know or like, as exploited by Tupperware parties. Separately, the halo effect induces us to imbue attractive others with unrelated positive attributes by assumption.
Physical attractiveness, similarity, compliments, contact and cooperation (familiarity), conditioning and association can all influence how much we like someone.
Kids away at camp. To increase hostility, separate them physically in different areas and give the separate groups names. Then put them in competition with one another. To increase harmony, construct situations where they have to cooperate, and where competition would be harmful to both sides.
Shakespeare: “The nature of bad news infects the teller.” A lot of strange behaviour can be explained by the fact that people understand the association principle well enough to strive to link themselves to positive events and separate themselves from negative events — even when they have not caused the events.
When talking about wins, sports fans often use “we” to associate themselves with success. When talking about losses they’ll often use “they” to distance themselves — even though it’s clear that that there is no causation in either case. People with a weakened self-image will feel a stronger need to do this.
Countering the liking strategy: it is too difficult to prevent ourselves from liking someone, but we must be aware of it when making decisions. In making a compliance decision, it is always a good idea to keep separate our feelings about the requester and the request.
Milgram experiment, 1965. ‘Teacher’ subjects continued to administer increasingly painful shocks under instruction of the researcher, even when the subject was clearly in agony and begged for them to stop.
Obedience to authority is another mental shortcut we use because in general it pays off — authority figures (teachers when we’re kids, doctors/lawyets/professionals when we’re adults) often have more information than at do. But this reflex can be abused by others taking advantage of their authority status or masquerading with fake status.
Again the pretence works as well as the real thing — even actors playing doctors are seen as having authority.
Titles, clothes, trappings — not only do these have great effect on our actions, we consistently underestimate the effect they have on our actions.
Countering abuse of authority — ask two questions: Is this authority truly an expert? How truthful can we expect the expert to be here?
Take care — sometimes the expert might make small concessions to appear more truthful. Seeming to argue against their own financial interests can sometimes serve those interests well, by establishing them as credible, helpful authority figures.
When customers show casual interest in an item on sale, a salesperson might pretend he thinks it has sold out — but that he could check the store room if they would be interested in buying it if it’s available. The apparent scarcity increases the perceived value of the item, and triggers a commitment that can then be used to the salesperson’s advantage when they return with the item and a sale contract to sign.
Related to the above limited-number technique is the deadline tactic. An offer is listed with an expiration date, triggering increased interest.
Primarily, our penchant for scarcity is again a shortcut based on the (generally correct) assumption that scarce items are more valuable.
A second explanation is that of psychological reactance: as opportunities become less available, we lose freedoms; and we hate to lose freedoms we already have. According to this theory, whenever choice is limited or threatened, the need to retain our freedoms makes us desire them (as well as the goods and services associated with them) significantly more than previously.
The power of psychological reactance is most clearly manifested in two age groups: twos and teens.
Under conditions of scarcity (e.g. an item being made illegal) we imbue the scarce item with more positive attributes than we otherwise would.
Often banning or censoring information can make that information appear more valuable or truthful.
When is scarcity most effective as a weapon of influence?
Newly experienced scarcity is more powerful than constant scarcity. Scarcity can be manifested as a lack of rights, and groups who have rights taken away become much more incensed than those who never had them in the first place. Children who lose established privileges are much harder to control than those lacking never-posessed ones.
Even more powerful is scarcity that is generated by demand. This is seen in black Friday sales, and with a lover becoming more keen with the appearance of a rival. It can also be seen in open-bid auctions, where participants and up bidding much more than they intended to. In a way, the winner of these auctions is often the loser.
Countering scarcity: as soon as we feel the tide of emotional arousal that flows from scarcity influences, we should use that rise in arousal as a signal to stop short. We need to calm ourselves and gain a radical perspective.
Once that is done we can calm ourselves why we want the item under consideration. If it is primarily for the purpose of owning it (as a rare commodity) then we should use its availability to help gauge how much we want to spend on it. However, if it is something we want primarily for its function, then we must remember that the item under consideration will function equally well whether scarce or plentiful. Quite simply, we need to recall that the scarce cookies didn’t taste any better.
All these weapons of influence can be used for good or bad ends. They are based on shortcuts we use which, when the evidence they use is legitimate, serve us well. Practitioners who use these ‘weapons’ ethically serve our best interests and allow us to make effective decisions quickly.
Practitioners who fabricate or distort evidence, or construct scenarios which affect our decision making do not serve our best interests and should be treated with caution.